This piece is written by Medha Gawai. It first appeared as part of the Guzra Hua Zamana series on Sangeet Ke Sitaare, a music group on Facebook.
His birth name was "Atmaram" but his refreshing personality earned him the name "Vasant". A signature Jasmine garland, a symbol of blessings from the legendary Sane Guruji, adorned his wrist. "Parimal" was the home where his timeless melodies were born. Steeped in the colors of classical tradition and the earthy fragrance of folk, they enlivened the listeners' minds. Vasant Desai's musical era was that blissful spring in the garden of Indian film music.
Vasant Desai was born in Sonawade in Konkan, the coastal belt of Maharashtra on June 9, 1912. Music was a maternal legacy. His mother was the daughter of a keertankar and every morning young Vasant would wake up to the strains of abhanga-s and ovee-s (traditional songs) in her sweet voice. Konkan was a festive region, bustling with cultural activities. Vasant regularly took part in the village folk theater and regaled the audience with good acting and singing. He then bought a harmonium and got associated with the local bhajan mandali. The love of chorus singing took roots here. A close relative realized his passion, took him under his wings, and brought him to Kolhapur, the happening place of art and culture. There, young Vasant again tried his hands at acting but was disappointed at repeatedly being offered female roles. He gave up the thought and concentrated on singing.
Anand Kanda Prabhat Jhaali - "Prabhat" of an Illustrious Career
It was around 1929 when V Shantaram with three of his contemporaries had left Maharashtra Film Company and formed Prabhat Films. The young ambitious owners were gathering fresh talent to fill in various departments. Possessed with an acting fever, a youthful Vasant knocked on their door. Shantaram was not impressed but noticing the sincerity took him in as an office boy. Vasant Desai did all kinds of odd jobs, ungrudgingly & wholeheartedly. As a bonus he got to do bit roles in their films."Khooni Khanjar" (1930) was his first film, in which he appeared as a soldier. At Prabhat he came in contact with people from all walks of life who had a positive influence on him. An actor by the name "Mane Pehelwan” impressed upon him the importance of physical fitness. Vasant got into daily rigorous workouts, a routine that stayed with him till the end.
Talkie era began in 1932 with Alam Ara and Prabhat ushered in with the launch of the bilingual film “Ayodhyecha Raja"/ “Ayodhya Ka Raja". For its music the chiefs took in a renowned actor, singer and an ace harmonium player of the defunct Gandharva Natak Company, Govindrao Tembe. Tembe would notice Vasant spending hours in the music room running his fingers on various instruments. He realized his musical acumen and made him a part of his music department. In keeping with his background of stage, Tembe composed a Naandi (opening song of a play) for the first talkie. The song "Jai jai Rajadhiraj, Harishchandra maharaj ", was in Vasant Desai's voice. One can say thus that the Marathi talkie era began with the voice of Vasant Desai. This was followed by films like "Maya Machhindra", "Sairandhri", and “Sinhagad" with music by Tembe, and Vasant Desai as a key player of his team. In "Sinhagad" Desai sang a powada (inspirational ballad) "jyachi kirti sarya jagtat". Master Vinayak, a teacher turned actor-director, was by now also a part of Prabhat; Desai and Master Vinayak became good friends.
In 1933, Prabhat shifted base to Pune .Vasant Desai moved along; Govindrao Tembe and Master Vinayak did not follow suit. Fortunately for Prabhat, Shantaram discovered another renowned composer of Sangeet Natak, Keshavrao Bhole and got him to be its new music director. Bhole went on to expand the scope of the music department by adding technologically advanced instruments. Bhole's style was quite distinct from that of Tembe's. He laid stress on a big orchestra. Background music was his forte. He would study the scenes and then carefully select instruments. At times he made use of natural and environmental sounds for background music .Vasant Desai learned and absorbed his style of music making. Bhole went on to compose outstanding music for "Amrit Manthan", “Chandrasena”, "Sant Tukaram", "Kunku/ Duniya na mane", “Sant Dnyaneshwar" and Vasant Desai contributed to each of them. He sang the song "aali murkat murakat sakhi" in the film “Amrit Manthan".
As Bhole developed confidence in his assistant, he entrusted him with the background score of the film “Sant Dnyaneshwar" (1940). Desai lived up to his expectations. Through many scenes in the film his thoughtfulness and ingenuity came across. One remarkable example was the sequence of Dnyaneshwar's Samadhi at the film's climax, where his use of Malkauns and Bhairavi strains through a swarmandal enhanced the grandeur and the celestial feel of the scene. In the film Desai also got an opportunity to compose two songs, "anand anand avagha" and "amhi daivache daivache shetkari". The latter enacted and sung by him in an authentic rustic manner became hugely popular. He made the line “Karu kaam, smaru naam, mukhi raam hari re" a motto of his life.
With Prabhat's next venture "Dharmatma" in association with Bal Gandharva, Master Krishnarao entered as the new music director .Master Krishnarao's emphasis was on melody and crispness of tune .He would compose multiple tunes for a song before settling on one. Vasant Desai adapted to his manner of composing. Master Krishnarao gave music for “Amar Jyoti”, the bilinguals "Aadmi"/ "Manoos" and "Shejari"/ "Padosi", in "Amarjyoti" he had Desai sing some songs. Around that time Vasant Desai began to learn classical music from Ustaad Inayat Khan of Agra Gharana. Later he learnt from Ustad Alam Khan, Shankarbua Ashtekar and Dagar brothers.
All good things must come to an end! Things soured at Prabhat and in 1942, after a glorious inning, Shantaram left his institution. Vasant Desai soon followed his mentor. He had spent 13 valuable years of his life at Prabhat, learned a great deal from his mentors and contributed to their success. He carried that experience and the discipline of Prabhat with him and on that foundation went on to build his own musical monument.
Rut Basant Ki Aayi – The Rajkamal Bond
V Shantaram established "Rajkamal" in October 1942 and now with complete faith in Vasant Desai, handed him over its music department. "Shakuntala"(1943), the first film of Rajkamal was a runaway success thanks mainly to its song "Jeevan ki naav na dole" in Jayashree's voice, which sold thousands of copies. Vasant Desai was now there to stay!
Shantaram’s films were off beat, experimental and Desai was expected to be in tune with them. He did little things that made a difference, like the echo effect in "jo dard ban ke zamaane mein" in the film "Parbat Pe Apna Dera" sung by Zohrabai, which he achieved despite technological limitations. In" Dr Kotnis Ki Amar Kahani ", a narrative on an Indian doctor on a mercy mission to China, he did a study of Chinese music and composed songs in a scale similar to that used in Chinese music. The film "Jeevan Yatra"(1946) set a milestone as the song" chidiya bole chu chu" in a young Lata Mangeshkar's voice became her first solo Hindi film song to be seen on screen. Dahej, a film with a social message had "ambuva ki daari pe gaaye re koyaliya”, another huge hit in Jayashree's voice.
A real challenge to him was the music of two Marathi films, both based on renowned Shahir-s (folk poets) who lived during the Peshwa rule in the history of Maharashtra. The films were bilinguals - "Lok Shahir Ram Joshi" made in Hindi as "Matwala Shayar Ram Joshi", and "Amar Bhupali", made both in Marathi & Bengalis. Desai strived to achieve a musical ambience that would reflect the culturally rich era of the Shahirs .He met folk singers, learned folk traditions such as powada, bhedik lavani, koot, sawal jawab, etc. and adapted them into songs that to date stand as "one of a kind" in the folk genre. The hard hitting, satirical powada “hata tatane pata"("thaat baat se math mein baitha") in Hindi, that mocked the so called upper class with its pseudo clout, struck a chord with the masses. "Sundara manamadhe bharali"("sundar naar sukumar") set the tone for shringaric lavanis in films. "Ram Joshi" in Marathi was a big success and led the Tamasha genre in films.
This was followed by "Amar Bhupali", a bi-lingual film on the life of Shahir Honaji. Vasant Desai put his heart and soul into its music. He studied in depth the character of Honaji, travelled to his home town, visited his descendants and after a careful study came up with what he felt convinced was a tune, a hymn, Honaji would compose. That "song of the dawn" rendered by Pandit Nagarkar and Lata Mangeshkar with the soothing rhythm of an earthen "Ghada” went on to become "amar". The male voice in the Bengali version was that of Manna Dey. The film's epilogue that read " Peshwai ended, The British ruled and left but the Bhupali of Honaji continues to play on the lips of people of Maharashtra" couldn't have been more prophetic! The film had abundance of shringaric lavanis; "latpat latpat tuza chalana", "sundara mhane dilwara", "ghadi ghadi are man mohana", the virah- lorn "tujhya preetiche dukkha mala", a baithakichi lavani "nako door deshi jau sajana",a gavalan "sanga mukund kuni ha pahila", a powerful powada “phadphad pahadakto jhenda”,each a masterpiece! With Amar Bhupali Lavani became a regular feature in Marathi films, placing Vasant Desai at the helm of this genre. With Rajkamal, tabla expert Vasantrao Achrekar and Baburao Nechkar became Desai's assistants. In later years, Kailasnath Jaiswal was also associated with him. Sebastian in the earlier years and Enoch Daniel later on were his music arrangers.
"Jhanak Jhanak Payal Baje", his next film for Rajkamal remains one of his most celebrated films. The film emphasized the richness and value of Indian classical dance, and it was determined to utilize Indian instruments alone. Vasant Desai travelled to various regions of India, met experts in the field and invited them to be a part of the classical ensemble. Thus tabla maestro Pandit Samta Prasad from Banaras, Khol expert Sudarshan of Calcutta, Sitarist Ustad Halim Zafar Khan, Mridang player Ramdas convened at Rajkamal. Santoor was introduced in films with Shiv Kumar Sharma from Kashmir. Ustad Amir Khan accepted the invitation to render the title song. It was initially recorded in Raag Darbari, much to Shantaram's disapproval! Vasant Desai was disappointed but reworked on it and set it in Raag Adana. It made the song more impressive and suitable as a title song. Ustad Amir Khan with vocals, especially the rapid fire taans turned it to gold. The film had a myriad of dances comprising Shiv tandav nrittya, Radha-Krishna nrittya, Menaka nrittya, a tribal dance, a Rati- Madan duet, a raagmala of ritu-s. One can only imagine the hours of dedication that must have gone in to synchronize the kathak toda-s, tabla bol-s, the sur and the orchestra! Vasant Desai and his associates worked tirelessly to help achieve Shantaram's dream. The film ran to packed houses mainly on the strength of its dances and music.
After the color spectacle, Shantaram made the stark and dark "Do Aankhen Barah Haath". For a subject that did not have much scope for music, Vasant Desai came up with a score that was situational and alluring. Again he added his touch to make the songs stand out. The use of chorus in "Aye malik tere bande hum" gave it a serene feel. "Umad ghumad kar aayi re ghata" and "saiyan jhooton ka bada" had the unique high pitched sound of a one string folk instrument called "koka". The lori "main gaoon tu chup ho ja" had an imaginative rhythm that simulated the sound of an oscillating window pane gently hitting a copper pot on the window sill. The songs added to the film's appeal.
After 12 films, 16 years, name and recognition at Rajkamal there came a time when Vasant Desai made the decision to part with his Guru. He left Rajkamal in 1958.
He returned years later to do the film "Iye Marathichiye Nagari", made in Hindi as "Ladki Shayadri Ki". It had beautiful songs in Asha Bhosle's voice, a classical "tohari ungali se", with intricate taans rarely heard in Suman Kalyanpur's voice, and "Vandana karo", the first song Classical vocalist Pandit Jasraj sang for films.
Basanti Phool Khile - Beyond Rajkamal
Vasant Desai did outstanding work with V. Shantaram, but it was often overshadowed by the Shantaram touch. V. Shantaram had a say in the music of his films and Desai had to work within confines of the director's vision. Leaving Rajkamal helped him come out of Shantaram's shadow and create a style that would be called his own. His work outside of V. Shantaram films began while he was employed at Prabhat. He had composed two songs for good friend Master Vinayak's film "Chhaya"(1936), however due to contract obligations this was done on the sly and he was not officially credited. At Rajkamal he was under no contract and able to freelance. He composed for three films of Wadia Movietone, of which "Shobha"(1942) is credited as his first official film as a composer. "Aankh Ki Sharm", Wadia Movitone’s next film also had music by Vasant Desai. “Aankh milte hi mohabbat ho gayi" was a nicely composed mujra in Amirbai Karnataki's voice, a tune that seems to have inspired many film mujras in the years that followed.
The earlier films “Subhadra”, “Nai Talim”, “Uddhar”, “Narsimha Avatar”, were an unsung Lata paradise and one can get carried away describing the beauty of each of their gems! To mention a few -"Aa gayi bahar"(Nai Talim, 1949), a gentle piano melody with amazing chadhav -utaar throughout was quite a departure from his usual style."Kaha raam he raam", "basanti phool khile, din patjhad ke gaye beet" (Uddhar, 1949) stood out for their amazing chorus backed crescendo. "Narsimha Avatar" (1949) was studded with bhajan-s in the voices of Lata Mangeshkar, Lalita Deolkar and written by Pandit Narendra Sharma, all heavenly.
Hyderabad Ki Nazneen (1952) is a top notch offering by Vasant Desai which unfortunately has been largely forgotten. It had two Lata stunners - “jaao chamka subah ka sitara" with that lovable stretch on "jaa~~o" and the honey sweet “kya kya na log chal base" with a nice tabla base. It also had had Rajkumari’s "nazron mein samane se qaraar" which is rated among her best sung songs. Talat Mehmood's "keh rahi hai raat andheri" was an unusual composition with an aura of mystery that kept pace with the eerie screen sequence.
Dhuaan (1953), a Dhaniram composed album had a lone Vasant Desai number "main sagar ki mast leher", replete with intricate taans and harkats, chorus, and the irresistible "milan ho kaise" refrain, a song that you can never have enough of!
Vasant Desai did two films for Sohrab Modi – “Sheesh Mahal” (1950) and “Jhansi Ro Rani"(1953), a spectacular biopic on the courageous queen stood out for its spirited songs and a background score that reflected the intensely nationalistic spirit of that period.
His most well-known film after leaving Rajkamal was Vijay Bhatt directed "Goonj Uthi Shehnai" (1959).The film with the hero as a Shehnai player brought center stage an instrument not seen in films before and Vasant Desai made sure to get the nation's best known maestro, Ustad Bismillah Khan to offer his services. The songs attained heights of popularity and are loved even today. The highlights of the film were really the instrumental and vocal passages scattered throughout. The jugalbandi sessions between shehnai student (Ustad Bismillah Khan) and his Guru (Ustad Amir Khan) depicting the learning period of the disciple, the jugalbandi between shehnai and sitar were enthralling. Vasant Desai chose raagas that would symbolically map the learning phases of the disciple. It took some efforts to convince the great Bismillah Khan to play for a film, within the constraints of a recording studio. Vasant Desai maintained tremendous patience and endurance as he attended to Khansaheb's needs and succeeded in extracting from the maestro's shehnai, an offering film goers would cherish a lifetime. Goonj Uthi Shehnai became a hit and needless to say mainly because of the music.
Following the success of "Goonj Uthi Shehnai", Atre films launched a film with emphasis on classical music named "Amar Samadhi". Maestros Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, Ustad Nazakat Ali, Salamat Ali, Dagar Bandhu were roped in. Vasant Desai was quite charged about the music. He aspired to make it as memorable as "Amar Bhupali", however the film could not be completed. Two songs and a raagmala in the voices of Lata Mangeshkar and Ustad Salamat Ali were recorded. A clip of the raagmala is available for listeners, it gives a glimpse of how marvelous the entire score was slated to be.
In 1961 he returned to Wadia brothers to compose for "Sampoorna Ramayan", a classical score mainly in Lata Mangeshkar's voice, and can be considered among the best in his repertoire. Similarly exquisite raaga based compositions in films like “Pyar Ki Pyaas”, “Ram Rajya”, “Amar Jyoti” and “Bharat Milap” in the 1960s.
Aashirwad in 1968, had Ashok Kumar return to singing after decades under Desai's baton. The lovingly rendered Railgadi song became a favorite with children. The pensive "Jeevan se lambe" filmed on a gadiwaan had the jingle of bells tied around the bull's neck serving as the rhythm.”Ek tha bachpan" in Gurjari Todi is one of Lata Mangeshkar's most moving renditions and also the last time she recorded for Desai. One fails to fathom why, but her rendition did not live up to Desai's expectations. It led to ill feelings and the two never worked together again.
In Hrishikesh Mukherjee's next film "Guddi" he brought in newcomer Vani Jairam. "Hum ko man ki shakti dena" and "bole re papihara" (a classical bandish rearranged into a light song) soared to heights of popularity and her very first film helped Vani Jairam establish a firm footing in the film industry. She then went on to sing a good number of songs for Vasant Desai. The songs “bikhre taar mile phir man ke" (“Grahan”, written by Vasant Desai himself), "mere shyam" and "ek to main ek murli birahan" (“Jai Radheshyam”) are her remarkable renditions.
His last two films were "Rani Aur Lalpari”, a children's film and a suspense drama "Shaque". "Shaque" had "meha barasane laga”, a beautiful rain composition with undertones of mystery fitting the theme.
"Desai was a musical conservative, but a flexible one … He was well immersed in the world of music but kept himself away from world music," writes musicologist Ashok da Ranade in his book "The Hindi Film Song". A common theme in many of his songs was the classical base, use of alaaps and intricate taans and chorus interwoven with the main voice and forming part of the interludes. He was fond of a particular taal which is described as धिंत्रक धिंधा । तिंत्रक तिंता –This unique keherva taal was made popular by Vasant Desai through songs like "nirbal se ladai balwan ki", "piya te kahaan gayo", "mhane chakar rakho", "aye malik tere bande hum", "runanubandhachya jithun padlya gathi"(Marathi).He worked with many lyricists but seems to have tuned in most with Pandit Bharat Vyas.
A mention must be made of his fascination for rain songs and the raagas associated with rains. "Dar lage garje badariya" (Sur Malhar), "jhir jhir barse sawani akhiyaan" (Gaud Malhar), "na na barso baadal" (Miyan Malhar), "badalon barso nayan ki kor se" (Bhairavi), "sawan ke jhoole pade","umad ghumad kar aayi re ghata", "bole re papihara" and "sawan ghan garje" (Miyan Malhar) and his last "meha barasane laga hai" (Jayant Malhar) had myriads of shades and moods associated with the rains.
Shyamsundar Roop Nayan Rajeev - Marathi Films
Vasant Desai composed for 20 odd Marathi films. As mentioned earlier, "Lok Shahir Ram Joshi" (1947) was the first Marathi film for which he composed music, followed by Sakharpuda (1949) and "Amar Bhupali" (1951), which remains one of his greatest and most cherished works.
"Shyamchi Aai" (1953), made by the noted litterateur Acharya Atre, was a heavy melodrama about the sentimental mother-son bond and set in rural Konkan. "Bharajari ga pitambar" composed in the traditional tune was a favorite with women."Chhadi laage chham chham" with the interesting use of Morchhang became a hit with kids. "Shyamchi Aai" was the first film to win the President's gold medal that year and remains a milestone in the field of Marathi films.
"Kanchanganga" a Lata Mangeshkar production had the rare classical "shyamsundar roop nayan rajeev" and “bol veene bol" among others. “Badalati nabhache rang kase" in “Ye Re Majhya Maglya" is a less heard but a charming song.
Asha Bhosle sang most of his Marathi film songs. His songs in "Molkarin" (Gujarati version “Moti Baa”), “Chhota Jawan”, “Dhaya Te Santaji Dhanaji”, “Swayamvar Jhaale Seeteche”, have been immortalized by Asha Bhosle. Most of the songs in Marathi films were critically acclaimed and popular in households. Vasant Desai was always proud of the fact that his songs had made it to the kitchen.
"Bayano Navare Sambhala" (1974) was a film on Indian dance forms and it starred Gopi Krishna and Jayshri T. The film won the best music award at the1974 Maharashtra State film festival."Ubhi ashi trailaukya sundari”, a raagmala sung by Asha Bhosle, Pramila Datar with a superb tarana finale by Khansaheb Ghulam Khwaja was voted the best Marathi song at Sursingar Samsad. Vasant Desai's mastery in the classical arena had esteemed classical vocalists render their vocals for films. Pandit Bhimsen Joshi's "ramya hi swargahun Lanka" (Swayavar jhaale Seeteche), with the quintessential Panditji taan-s, alaaps interspersed with lovely Jaltarang is a spellbinding rendition! A Sant Tukaram abhang in Bhimsen Joshi's voice, "Ratrandin amha yuddhacha prasang" from the film "Raja Shiv Chhatrapati" is a lesser known but a must-listen. Shobha Gurtu ("Raja Shiv Chhatrapati” & “Dhanya te Santaji Dhanaji”) and Ustad Amir Khan (“Ye Re Majhya Magalya) were other classical vocalists who sang for Marathi films under Vasant Desai's music direction.
Malaygiricha Chandan Gandhit – Setting the Stage with Natyasangeet
The early part of the 20th century was hailed as the golden age of Marathi Musical Drama (Sangeet Natak). Around the mid-1930s, with the advent of talkie and aging of the prominent, it began its descent. In 1960 noted playwright Bhalchandra Pendharkar took upon himself to revive the dying theater with a play on the life of a Sanskrit poet called "Panditraj Jagannath". He approached good friend Vasant Desai, who accepted the offer with some hesitation. Natyasangeet was time-consuming, it had its limitations and set conventions. Certain raaga-s were favored and there was a pattern to song situations. Vasant Desai chose to break away from those traditions and for his very first play composed a "theme song" that would appear in parts through the play. That song, "Jai gange bhagirathI' composed in three different styles and ragas; a solo, a chorus and a finale with a crescendo became the high light of the play and contributed immensely to its success. The play ushered in a renewed era of Sangeet Natak. "Jai Jai Gaurishankar" (1966) on the life of Shiv-Parvati was another peak in Desai's Natyasangeet career.
Vasant Desai composed for 14 Marathi plays. "Preeti Sangam," Dev Dinaghari Dhavala", and "Geeta Gaati Dnyaneshwar" are some that are remembered for their outstanding natyageet-s
Among his other endeavors in Theater were the Nrittya-natika-s (Ballets). He took anecdotes from the lives of great men and women from various walks of life and presented them as a musicals. "Bhavana", "Sant Sakhu" with Vyjayantimala as the lead, "Shiv Darshan", "Vishwadarshan" were some of his acclaimed ballets.
From his early years at Prabhat he had developed a keen interest and insight into background score of films. He had received praise for his background score of Sant Dynaneshwar. Shantaram would entrust him with the background score even in films where another composer was chosen for the songs. With time his experience and expertise made him a sought out composer of background music .He gave as much importance to background music as he did to the songs. For Sohrab Modi's grand epic "Jhaansi ki Rani" he used an ensemble of 60 odd musicians with only the traditional Indian instruments .In “Ram Rajya” some 140 musicians including greats like Pandit Ravi Shankar, Ustad Allarakha, and Halim Zafar Khan gathered to score the music. Besides instrumental tunes he used nature's sounds, everyday household noises where apt and made scenes realistic.
An illustration of his exemplary work was "Shyamchi Aai", the acclaimed Marathi film on the sensitive mother-son bond. The story written by the revered social reformist and freedom fighter Sane Guruji was rooted in idealism, earthy philosophy, traditions and culture of Maharashtra .Vasant Desai composed exceptional music conforming to these standards. He agonized most over the choice of a right sound to underscore the moment when the name and statue of Sane Guruji appeared in the credits. No instrument in his mind could do justice to the Legend of his stature. In the end he resolved to the sound of a cow's mooing in the background! The symbolic expression of a mother's love aptly summarized the theme and highlighted the essence of Sane Guruji's life.
"Yaadein", Sunil Dutt's one actor, one night film with little dialogue was another test of his virtuosity. Vasant Desai did a painstaking study of each scene, and then chose the right instrument, the right tone that would help the narrative smoothly carry forward. In certain scenes he did away with instrumental music. The sound of toys for the children's room, the "saptapadi" chant in a scene involving the memories of the wife was a novel idea that brought the scenes alive.
He also did the background score for films like “Zalzala", "Ferry", "Kabhi Andhera Kabhi Ujala", and is recognized for the wonderful score of the song-less film "Achanak".
Ek Sur Ek Taal – Beyond Films and Theatre
Vasant Desai considered it his duty to utilize his talent for the welfare of society. He took up a mission to foster the love and appreciation of Indian music among masses, importantly children and youth. In October, 1954 a “Balak Melava" was organized at Shivaji Park, Mumbai and graced by the Prime Minister, Pandit Nehru. To commemorate the occasion Vasant Desai rehearsed and presented over 150,000 children who sang "Jana gana mana" in unison to the amazement of the Prime minister. Similarly during Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri's reign he presented the Nationalistic song written by Pt. Bharat Vyas, "Bharat mein mahabharat hoga" at Azad Maidan. He composed patriotic songs during the Indo-China war and rendered them as group songs in events held to boost the troops.
On the footwork of this concept arose the state wide movement called “Ek sur, ek taal". Launched in 1972. It was aimed at assembling a large group of children on one platform and introduce to them the concept of "sur" and "taal" through group singing. The project, intended to instill in them the spirit of unity and secularism, was a brain child of the Education Minister .Vasant Desai, entitled "Music director of the state", was given the task of implementing it. He selected poems from the Balbharati textbooks and set them to simple and attractive tunes that students could easily recite. He travelled to remote towns and held camps to train teachers and students. He promoted the love of group singing, rhythm and poetry and in turn awakened a Nationalistic spirit. He was passionately involved in this project until his untimely death.
"He namrata ke samrat", an address to the almighty written as a free verse by Mahatma Gandhi was set by Desai to a melodious tune. The song recorded in Manna Dey's voice was released in 1969, the birth centenary year of Gandhiji, as a tribute to the great leader.
He recorded Vande Mataram in 3 versions; a vocal in his voice along with a chorus, an instrumental version with all Indian instruments and a third version with all western instruments.
Spiritual at heart, he organized and performed at various Bhakti-sangeet programs. Among his major accomplishments was the tune he set on M.S. Subbulakshmi's request to "Matreem bhajata", a benediction by Chandrasekarendra Saraswati. The tune set as a raagmala was rendered by Subbulakshmi at United Nations before an enthralled audience.
He also composed several devotional songs, Meera bhajans, and abhanga-s in the voices of Chandrani Mukherjee, Mahendra Kapoor, Vani Jairam and others; and gave music for 13 short films.
He had no formal education but he was self-taught. The years at Prabhat had helped him develop an interest in literature as Prabhat films were often based on the lives of literary saints and shahir-s. He became a good writer. In the later years he wrote regularly for noted Marathi weekly, Rasrang. His articles were autobiographical; about his life, his music and the state of Indian music.
He was a gifted orator -articulate, outspoken and witty. He delivered impactful speeches on various occasions urging to maintain a dignified standard in film music .He was one of the very few individuals from the music field to be appointed as the President of "All india Natya Parishad" . He worked to resolve issues affecting professional theater and to bring back its lost prosperity.
1967 he was awarded Padmashree, and in 1974 he became a member of Maharashtra state assembly.
Vidhi Ne Dekho ... Kaisa Khel Rachaya – The End
December 22nd, 1975 - Vasant Desai was returning home after recording a song to promote Indira Gandhi's 20 point program. The song was "hanste gaate mauj manate"! He got into a malfunctioning elevator, he was crushed to death in seconds! How ironical that a man who had earned good health and physique through tremendous self-discipline and cultivated habits let it helplessly get mutilated at the hands of a freaky machinery! The news shocked the entire film fraternity and his admirers who could not come to terms with how a man with such kindness in his heart could have been subjected to such a gruesome end! His funeral was attended by a large number from the film fraternity and mourned by thousands of children whose lives he had touched.
"Shaque", his last film released after his death opened with an emotional tribute - A picture of him smiling beside his harmonium, the signature strains of "Ghanshyam Sundara" in the background and the credits that read “dedicated with love to Vasant Desai. Strangely Shaque had a song with the words" abhi na parda girao thehero, ke dastan aage aur bhi hai".
...To Khinch Ke Mere Paas Aaoge Tum...
A traditionalist, Vasant Desai strived to propagate Indian culture and values and to take it to the heart of the masses. A true patriot, he remained committed to the advancement of nationalistic spirit through his work. A dignified human being, he stayed out of controversies and unaffected by lack of award recognition.
He was married, only to his music!
Loosely translating from a paragraph in his biography by Madhu Potdar - in a speech delivered at a Natya sammelan he had said, "My ragini is called life, taal is my wisdom; vaadi is labor, samvaadi - determination. My music may not have the wizardry of tunes or marvels in taal but it will always have a firm sur of commitment to my work and a sama of responsibility ".
The fact that his music continues to be nostalgically revisited years after it was made is a tribute to those melodic virtues he maintained all his life.
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- Vasant Veena- by Madhu Potdar
- The Desai Trio And The Movie Industry Of India - by Nilu N. Gavankar
- Hindi Film Song - Music Beyond Boundaries - Ashok Da Ranade
- V Shantaram, The Legacy Of The Royal Lotus - by Kiran Shantaram, Sanjit Narwekar
- Dhunon Ki Yatra - by Pankaj Rag
- Articles from Loksatta, internet blogs, RMIM archives.